Thursday, December 1, 2011

On being a writer

My students know that I write. So even though I don't teach any creative writing courses, there are usually a handful of students from each class every semester who come and talk to me because they want to be writers.

There are, I tell them, lots of ways of being a writer. There is writing that you do solely for yourself, or writing that you do because you want others to see it. You write because you want to see your name in print, or because you want to get paid. There is writing that is a hobby, and writing that is a career. Sometimes these categories combine. I tell them there is nothing inherently better or worse about any of these ways of writing, they are just different to each other.

Usually, though, when a student comes to see me about writing, it is because she wants to write for publication, with the stated or implied hope of it being a career, and the often implied hope of seven-figure book deals, lunches with King and dinners with Rowling. I try to give a reality check - I mention median first novel advances and that professional short story rates are five cents a word. I talk about people I know with multiple books on the shelf who still can't afford to be full-time writers. This information almost never makes a difference, and I'm glad, even though I think it should be part of the calculus. I don't think there's anything wrong with being attracted to a profession because you think you will be blindingly successful in it - you might be. Better to dream.

So I talk about rejection letters and submissions guidelines and daily page counts and rejection letters and query letters and letters you have to send to markets that forget to pay you and that time that I cut 20,000 words because they were the wrong words and critique groups and beta readers and that year I couldn't sell anything and rejection letters. I tell them that I love writing, even on the days that I hate it. That even though it is work, it is a job, there is nothing I would rather being doing. I think I must speak that last bit louder than the rest, because they walk out of my office bright eyed and shiny, and I see them clutching notebooks, and typing madly on laptops before class.

I hope they succeed. And by succeed, I mean get what they need out of the experience of writing, whether they only think of themselves as writers for a semester, or whether they go on to a career of millions of copies sold. 

But I think the next time someone asks what it is like to be a writer, I am going to point them at this post of Nova Ren Suma's, where she says "I'm a writer first, and then a person." It's a fantastic post for reasons more than simply that phrase, but that description really spoke to me. Because I think that to continue - especially if you are writing for someone other than yourself, if you are writing for publication, if you are writing with an eye to being a better writer, you must learn to be a writer first, and then a person.

You must learn that you cannot wait around for inspiration to show up, but must find it, whether by being open to ideas or by refusing to get up from your desk until you have 250 new words. You must learn that strange double self, of having an ego large enough to sit down at the notebook and pick up the pen in the first place, yet still able to sublimate itself in pursuit of the best story. You must learn how to have deadlines in lieu of a social life, and how to keep working even on the days the rejections make you weep.

You must learn to pare away everything, until all you have left is that core of what's most important, and then build your life outward from that. Then, you will be a writer.


  1. This post, for a multitude of reasons, just made me cry. I should point out that I'm also wading through revisions, which is simultaneous the most awesome and heartbreaking experience. Thus, I'm slightly at the end of my emotional rope.

    But this post made me cry, because being a writer -- it's hard. I'm still learning how to be a writer, while leaving myself in the background. I handle rejection fairly well, but it still feels like someone took a metal-cleated shoe to my soul, sometimes.

    I read the Nova Ren Suma's post yesterday, and it filled me with hope. It made me remember myself at seventeen, scribbling short stories in my notebook during English class. I could really relate to her post. I can really relate to this one.

    It's things like this that make me feel like I can do this, even on the days where I feel like I can't.

    This is a really long-winded way of saying thank you. But, thank you.

  2. "I wrote when I thought it would be easy, and I wrote when all I heard was: No. No. No. No. No. No.[....]"

    I had to laugh at that part of the blog entry you linked, because that's exactly what my life has been like for the last I don't know how many years, and the same is probably true for most writers. I have no idea where this stubbornness is coming from, but when I read descriptions of it, such as this one, I can't help but being in awe.

  3. I know, right? Sane people hear that many nos, and they think, hmm, maybe I ought to try something else. Maybe we got extra stubborn in our DNA.

  4. I'm so very glad that I followed a link to this post today. Thank you.

  5. This post is beautiful. I'm thrilled to know that mine led to yours... giving me this chance to read it. Thank you.